Pop quiz: what’s more important — finding a job that you love or finding a job that pays you what you want to earn?

These days, the politically correct answer would be to say “both” and suggest that nobody should ever settle for less money or less happiness than that ideally want to obtain.  As people are discovering, however, at least in the current market, many career decisions DO come down to some level of tradeoff in this regard.  This reality becomes even more pronounced as workers become older and more experienced, since in many cases, their income needs often rise substantially at the mid-career point to accommodate things like owning a home, college tuition, putting away money for retirement, and the like.  So one of the most essential planks of effective career planning is the need for people to think soberly about the subject of money and come to grips with the relative priority that income plays in their lives.  Is is better to continue your career as an attorney in order to bring home a six-figure salary, even if you’re utterly bored with the practice of law?  Is it time to disembark from the CFO track to pursue your screenwriting interests?  Is it advisable to check out of your high-paying job at Microsoft and open that bike shop you’ve been dreaming about, even if you might not make a single penny of take-home pay during the first year or two of operation?

These are the very real conundrums that many professionals are struggling through these days and I frequently encounter people who feel torn between the basic need for economic security and the higher-order desire to find work that makes them happy, fulfilled, and fully self-actualized as a human being.  In fact, in one of the most marvelous Freudian slips I’ve ever witnessed, one of my clients remarked “I really want to make a career change and do something I’m more passionate about, but honestly, I can’t afford to start over or take a major pay cut, so I feel like I’m stuck in a cash-22…”

So what role does money play in choosing a career, exactly?  How should one view the economic factor compared to other important elements such as personal growth, enjoyment, or making a difference in the world?

My own personal opinion, frankly, is that money is a much more important element of career satisfaction than people realize or are usually willing to admit, either to others or to themselves.  I don’t say this lightly, however, and I’m not suggesting that we all should willingly acquiesce to a lifetime as wage slaves, toiling along in drudgery.  It’s just that when you stop and think about it, income is the one indispensable characteristic that defines the notion of a “job” in the first place.  Everything else one might want out of an employment relationship can be derived from other sources, when it comes down to it.  If we want to make a difference in the world, there are ample volunteer opportunities in which we can participate.  If we want to stretch our boundaries to their full potential, we can train for a marathon, master a foreign language, or pursue virtuoso status on a musical instrument.  And if we want to have fun, well, we’ve all got our hobbies — or at a bare minimum, a near-infinite number of diversions and entertainment options to choose from.

But the single ingredient that makes a job a job (and not a hobby) is the fact that you get paid for doing it.  So to dismiss economic needs as unimportant or somehow more “unworthy” than other possible work outcomes or factors seems a bit disingenuous, to me.  In fact, I love how Jason Alba of JibberJobber framed the issue in a recent LinkedIn Answers question he posted here that generated over 50 responses.  He essentially suggests that our society has now outgrown the whole concept of “job security” and posits, instead, that what most people are really facing (and will continue to face) is an “income security” problem, instead.  How can we guarantee ourselves a steady income in a world where job tenures are fleeting, uncertain, and tenuous?  Is “going out and getting another job” still the answer, in all cases, or should individuals adopt a broader, more diversified strategy for producing income in their lives?  Perhaps the next generation won’t even be able to entertain the luxury of settling down into a single, steady career path.  Instead, they might need to put themselves in a position to receive multiple income streams (as Jason has) or manage their cash flow much more aggressively in order to make ends meet on an ongoing basis.

At any rate, for those of you out there in transition, I guess my takeaway from this somewhat rambling post would be to encourage you to think hard about the role that money really plays in your list of career priorities.  While you may be passionate about finding a job with flexible hours or that gets you excited to jump out of bed in the morning, I suspect you are at least equally passionate about feeding your family, putting  a roof over their head, and providing them with a comfortable lifestyle.  Am I wrong about this?  If so, perhaps you’re the exception to the rule, but for most people I work with, we quickly discover that economic analysis is a fundamental part of making smart, sustainable career decisions.

As Daniel Quinn put it in Ishmael, one of my favorite books of all time, “the world would be a much different place if some idiot, 10,000 years ago, didn’t decide to lock up all the food…”